Kratie: a journey not a destination

Some places are a real pain in the butt to get to. Of course if it’s a remote or rural location that’s one thing, but when its off the main highway of a country, well that is something else. Getting to Kratie was the beginning of what would be an epic journey for us. Over the next few days we endured broken down buses, blown out tires, drunk and belligerent tuk-tuk drivers, buses that were literally 5 hours late, and even a night bus that completely lacked headlights. But I’m ahead of myself.
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Kratie promised to be a little of a frontier town on the banks of the Mekong, with what the guidebooks describe as a charming colonial history. As any experienced traveler or travel blog reader at this point knows, reading between the lines of the guidebook, Kratie was sure to be an unimpressive location on the way to something else. We were enticed by the promise of Irawaddy River Dolphins, an extremely endangered species of dolphin that lives in deep pools of The Mekong River near Kratie. As luck would have it, the night before we left Siem Reap, Discovery Channel ran a program on the giant catfish and stingray of the Mekong River, and to our shock and amazement the host stopped in Kratie. High with hopes for dolphins, and perhaps something a bit ickier, we set off.

Dropped at the crossroads by our Siem Reap shuttle, we were piled into the back of a mini-bus (matatu, combi, dolmush, whatever you want to call it), relieved that the transfer actually showed up, we were still in a good mood a few minutes later when the driver pulled up to a commercial garage. With the roll up garage door opening, we were sure cargo was about to be loaded. Sure enough about 10 meters of thick blue plumbing pipe came out first. Rolled to a diameter of about a meter in a half, we laughed as the driver tried to shove it in the back. My sister, with her sarcastic sense of humor, laughed as random greasy boxes were loaded in the back. Biofuel. With little room left, we were sure the van was about to leave, but no, not yet, the driver could still see out the back window.5171142901 8c3004667d Kratie: a journey not a destination And that’s when we saw it. Piece by piece men from within the garage were taking out a full size table saw, with a crane. Yup, that baby was loaded in back with the plumbing lines, greasy boxes and backpacks. At some point a tricycle was shoved aboard an nearly an hour later, we set off.

It won’t surprise you to hear we got a flat tire. What may surprise you is that the driver actually had a spare, but lacked a jack. Jacking the car up on a tree branch he and another man changed the tire and we were off again…

The next day, in the back of a tuk-tuk with a driver named “Lucky”, we headed out of town to see the dolphins. With a price-back guarantee, our boatman took us out to the middle of the river and we waited. Finally the dolphins appeared and without much fanfare disappeared again as quickly as they came. The famous, if not a little bashful river dolphins, didn’t want to be an attraction.

5171702428 4b632277d2 Kratie: a journey not a destinationOn the way back into town our little group stopped at a monastery that Lucky had told us was holding a festival. Unfortunately he forgot some of the important details and we arrived about eight hours to early to a festival, one that we were certainly not invited. The monks were gracious however and we poked around the Monastery a little bit. Having our fill we were about to leave when an Australian who was part of our party asked if any of us spoke French. Rusty as it might be, my husband and sister volunteered my skills and we were off to a private area of the monastery where the monks were eating lunch. It turned out that several of the older nuns spoke rudimentary French and as I translated the Australian’s desire to meditate with them, the nuns asked numerous questions about us and our lives back home. Set against a backdrop of 5 Buddhist monks eating [meat] and nuns chanting it was a memorable experience. The entire group was as fascinated and interested in us as we were with them and our time past quickly.

If You Go: Transportation to Kratie is easy, but getting out, especially if you are going North can be a porblem. Try to arrange onward transport when you arrive. Most transprotation going north will be at least 2 hours late by the time it arrives in Kratie. The dolphin boat price is setby the government, and if you choose not to take the boat, they will try to make you pay the same prices just to sit on the landing.

Angkor Wat

5146758858 7f27bc295f Angkor WatI don’t remember when Angkor Wat first captured my imagination, but for me it has always seemed like an enchanting and exotic place. Obviously I’m not the only one given how many movies have been filmed on-site.

There is no denying that the Angkor temples are incredible both in architecture and design. Huge pyramids and towers covered in carvings, the pyramids are an inspiring site from up close and afar. Incredibly detailed despite time and weathering, the temples are nothing less than enchanting. Strangling trees wrap intricately carved religious figures and buildings giving the area an almost Narnia feel. It was exactly as I imagined it and standing below the main level in the Bayon looking up at the towering faces carved into the stone I felt as though I stood in an exotic, fantasy world.

The temples at Angkor, dozens in all, are left over from the reign of the Khmer empire which reigned at an interesting point in Cambodia’s history. Extending over land from Myanmar to China and the Malay Peninsula the empire reigned for nearly 500 years. 5145982747 14e1abaf54 Angkor WatDuring the Khmer empire the court changed religions, from Hindu to Buddhism. Most interestingly, the temples were still used and hardly changed at all and scenes, gods and religious figures from both religions are found through out the sites even today. Angkor Wat itself is in fact, is decorated in some pretty fabulous bas-reliefs depicting the Hindu epic Ramayana and Mahabharata. The cultural and religious mixing made for some really interesting art, I only wish I had an art historian or religious scholar with me to tell me the stories.

Although my sister originally planned to visit us again for Thailand we convinced her to extend her vacation a little bit and join us starting in Cambodia. With so much history and atmosphere the only thing the three of us could really do to take it all in was spend the whole day wandering around.  From temple to temple we roamed, picnicking in the cool shade of Ta Prohm and climbing through the Bayon. Despite the numerous roaming vendors and pushy souvenir stalls, the temples maintain an captivating atmosphere.

5146200936 cd1f8e35a8 Angkor WatIF YOU GO: One day was enough to do what the tours call the “petit tour” of the major sites, after that we were templed out. We stayed outside of town at Angkor Spirit Palace which we highly recommend. Shuttle buses run regularly to/from Phnom Penh. Despite what the guidebooks say there are connections from Siem Reap to eastern Cambodia that don’t go through Phnom Penh. Be careful with the Khmer massages- ours was basically an hour long tiger balm rub down. There is good and inexpensive souvenir shopping in Siem Reap. Browse the “old market”, but buy what you want at the Central Market further down Sivatha Street where starting prices are about half that of the “old market.” Check the quality of everything though, most clothing in the market is irregular or second-quality. Please do NOT buy from children selling in the temple complexes. Simply responding to their requests by saying firmly that you do not buy from children will send most of them away. They wouldn’t be there if tourists didn’t buy from them – they belong in school not selling trinkets.

Foodie Friday: Rice or Noodles?

Often times meal choices in Asia revolve around something to do with rice or something to do with noodles. Much the same as being in Central America where if we didn’t have egg, rice and beans for lunch we were certainly having it for dinner. Thankfully here we at least get the choice between rice and noodles. 5128153951 02c317597d Foodie Friday: Rice or Noodles?

What you may find interesting is the insane amount of instant noodles that have worked there way into daily Asian cuisine. To list the differing varieties of instant noodle sold on the street is to sound like Bubba from Forrest Gump. There’s instant noodles with veggies, instant noodles with veggies and chicken, instant noodles in soy sauce, instant noodles in fish sauce, and well the list goes on and on. Now I love instant noodles, but there comes a time when you just can’t handle them anymore.

Hitting my instant noodle limit in Cambodia, we walked into a western bar/restaurant in a small town. The only such place in town, we sat down and were greeted by one of the most outrageous expats to date. Of course he was the owner, and like so many expat come entrepreneur we’ve met around the world, he was in an um… altered vietnam instant noodles Foodie Friday: Rice or Noodles?state. Assuming that a real western restaurant would say instant noodles in stead of just noodles on the menu, I ordered noodles and veggies. As the words escaped my mouth a plate of instant noodles was put down on the table next to us. Asking to change my order if the plate was instant noodles, the owner jumped down my throat and went off on a tirade about how the locals eat instant noodles. In shock, I agreed with him, but still changed my order.

Yes, locals do eat instant noodles. But, they also eat so many other varieties. While instant noodles are the cheapest and fastest and thus the most popular on the street, there are a plethora “real” noodle options. Egg, rice and regular wheat noodles come in all different varieties and you probably wouldn’t be surprised to know that the name of your favorite Asian dish actually describes the type of noodle it’s made with. In fact, in Chinese Lao Mien (Lo Mein) actually means mixed noodle without broth!

Translated as just “noodle” on the menu, I hardly ever know I am going to get a thin, round, rice vermicelli or a long flat, wheat, fettuccine like noodle. Same goes with rice- it may be regular long grain steamed or it might be sticky rice.

So although instant noodles might have a stronghold in daily cuisine, its not that hard to find some “real” noodles, or if you really want to avoid instant noodles, there’s always rice!

Let’s Talk about Genocide

As a traveler, it can be hard to deal with a country’s political situation or history. Sometimes its as simple as jumping through hoops to get a visa, but other times its something much more morally complex. We’ve dealt with this a number of times along our journey, first and foremost being Sudan. Sudan, a country whose President is wanted in the International Criminal Court for three counts of genocide, whose government doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and who continues to perpetrate genocide on its lands.

From Sudan through the Middle East into Israel, and were confronted with our own Jewish history, as well as a rather surprising number of Sudanese refugees for that matter. From Israel we, rather ironically, flew to Berlin. We toured Germany for about one week and in that time visited one of Hitler’s first, and possibly most feared concentration camp, Dachau. Continuing east through Europe those images stayed with us as we saw traces of the war through several former Soviet states.

Next stop, Turkey. No mention there of the Turk’s work in the Armenian Genocide, that’s because all those Armenians are either dead or living in the West. Once we got to Armenia though, the floodgates opened on what was the first genocide, of far more than one, in the 20th century. We left Armenia for Kazakhstan, final resting place to many who were sent to, and never returned from, the fearsome Soviet Gulags.

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And now, we find ourselves in Cambodia where the horrors of the 20th Century continue to follow us. In one morning we visited a school that was turned into a torturous prison and then moved to the fields where those prisoners were killed; appropriately named ‘The Killing Fields.’ These sites date from the 1970s.

When the US pulled out of Vietnam, it did the same in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh two weeks before Saigon fell. The North Vietnamese sent those who fought for the Southern Vietnamese government packing to the US and Australia. The Khmer Rouge, on the other hand, sought a more enduring solution.

The Khmer Rouge turned a Phnom Penh high school into the S-21 prison, where 17,000 men and women were held and subjected to Nazi-like levels of cataloging before being sent to ‘The Killing Fields’ for their final solution. At the prison, even without a guide, it was easy to understand what was happening as locals closely scanned through photos of the victims on the walls, stopped at one and cried as they took a photo.

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Visiting the fields themselves was even worse, seeing the tree that babies were swung against, by their ankles, to kill them so they couldn’t grow up and enact revenge on those responsible for their parents; deaths. Walking through the fields pieces of clothes, teeth, and bone poke up through the dirt and grass. Many of the mass burial pits have not been cordoned off and walking along the dirt paths, no matter how hard you try not to, it is clear that you are walking over remains. In several places people had collected these bone fragments and teeth under small shelters in a makeshift memorial to those who had died. A newly built pagoda/stupa stands in the center of the area. Filled with the skeletal remains of 8000 bodies found in one of several mass graves on site, the bones are behind glass, but on more than one it is easy to see how the person was killed.

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Although 17,000 may not sound like a large number in comparison to the 12 million killed by the Nazis, the total loss of human life at the hands of the Khmer Rouge however, inclusive of far more travesties than I’ve discussed here, are currently estimated at around 2 million; somewhere between one quarter and one third of Cambodia’s entire population at the time.

Travel is fun, enjoyable, and generally fills us with great memories and stories we will cherish for the rest of our lives. Just as importantly, it can show us the other side of human nature and world history, one that unfortunately is not so wonderful…

The scenic route to Cambodia

5143086816 b9ed762987 The scenic route to CambodiaFrom Southern Vietnam there are two ways to get to Phnom Penh – the easy way and the scenic way. Gluttons for punishment or a sense of adventure, depending on how you see it, we decided to go the scenic way. Three days by boat through the Mekong Delta.

For me the Mekong is one of those mythical big rivers. Like the Nile or the Amazon, the Mekong is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia. Running from its head waters in Tibet 2,703 miles to the South China Sea, the Mekong Delta is the center of Southern Vietnam’s economy. From lively and extensive floating markets, to small villages and Buddhist temples hidden in caves, the area is rich in activity.

Our Mekong Delta tour was pretty much as expected, a tour that shuttled us through tons of places in very little time stopping at everyone’s souvenir shop along the way. Typical on these kinds of tours, we sampled tropical fruits while listening to traditional music (CD: $10), coconut candies (one package: $1), and a rice noodle factory (1 kilo of noodle: $2). And then there was the Burmese Python, which thankfully was free to touch. As you can tell by the pictures, I was slightly freaked out by the whole thing. Slightly is an understatement.5128232735 b6779ca9b2 The scenic route to Cambodia

Although the area is undergoing dramatic economic development, most of the population still lives by the river’s waters. That’s the real draw to the area, and although we spent most of our time on uncomfortable wooden boats, it was interesting to see life along the river.

Besides being the local “highway”, the river also supports several floating markets, floating residences and a huge variety of floating businesses from fish farming to restaurants and even the border post. That’s right, Vietnamese Immigration is a floating building on the Mekong. We’ve crossed numerous border, a few have been over water, but I’m pretty sure this was our first floating border post. Thankfully the Cambodian officials chose to build their post on land and at least for a little while we were able to get off the boat.

5142456295 8f6db02609 The scenic route to CambodiaIn a van for the last 40km to Phnom Penh, our driver turned on his favorite music- 1998 pop music. Song after song from artists that should never be heard from again (Jamaraquai, Aqua…) we laughed in disbelief as song after song blared through the speakers. Finally we surrendered and by the time we arrived in Phnom Penh the entire van was singing along to such favorites as “Barbie Girl” and “Spice up your life.” Welcome to Cambodia.

If You Go: Two and three day tours are easy and affordable and easy to book in Ho Chi Minh City. You can get around the region independently but it is time consuming. Be prepared for an onslaught of souvenir shops. If you do cross the border into Cambodia, you will have no choice but to pay a $1 stamping fee(bribe)to the immigration officials. Visas for Cambodia can be arranged at the border,but if you do the tour in reverse,you’ll need your Vietnamese visa in advance.